HSJ Institute Times ASNE H.S.J. Institute at UT-Austin Austin, TX
Issue Date: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 Issue: 2012 UT ASNE Reynolds Institute Last Update: Monday, July 02, 2012
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Reports from the UT ASNE Reynolds High School Journalism Institute


Mockingbird Loyals members Mary Beth Widhalm and Liz Gilbert serenade the crowd at one of Austin's many live music venues. - April Braun
In Austin, music is inescapable, and without it, Mary Beth Widhalm would be bored. Her love of music follows her throughout the day and into the night.

Widhalm, who has played for 16 years, is not your typical cellist. Though her background is in classical music and she was raised by two classical musicians, Widhalm’s musicianship helps keep Austin weird.

By day, Widhalm works a reference desk and leads story time at the Westbank Community Library. By night, she hauls her cello into the grimy dive bars that are part of Austin’s famous music scene. Widhalm is a straight-laced librarian during the day and an often-drunk musician at night.

“Not so long ago, it was our tour kick off, CD release, and my birthday, all the same night,” she said. “I was pretty much double-fisting shots and beer all night for free. Everybody came out and was buying me drinks, and I woke up the next morning like frantically trying to get my stuff together to go on tour for 10 days. I just got trashed. Birthday drunk.”

But most nights, she’s a seasoned musician. Widhalm has played with a variety of bands in the Austin area, including an all-girl rock band, a folk group, and a baroque-rock group.  Widhalm’s rock-star cello-playing landed her a spot in the folk group, Mockingbird Loyals.   Loyals’ singer Liz Gilbert played in a three-piece version of the band with vocals, guitar and banjo, but always felt the music lacked something. One of her bandmates asked Widhalm to practice with the Loyals to see how a cello would fit. The band spent many months trying to convince Widhalm to join yet another band.

"Finally she was like, ‘Fine I’ll practice with you guys,’” Gilbert said. “The first practice we instantly said we never want any other instrument with us. She filled everything that we needed. We didn’t want drums any more. We just want Mary Beth. She instantly just matches with us. She brings in this muddy rhythm and makes everything just gorgeous. We wanted a standup base for a while, and we’re like, ‘No, all we need is Mary Beth.”

Widhalm helped the Loyals achieve the sound they were striving for. The group, comprised of a rhythm guitar, slide guitar, banjo, cello and Gilbert’s twangy voice, sounds like a mix of Southern bluegrass and a hippie jam band. The country banjo and guitar carry the rhythm of the group, and Gilbert stomps her cowboy boots while chugging a tall-boy of Pabst Blue Ribbon and belting out delicate, but raspy vocals. Widhalm’s cello provided soft undertones that gave the music balance and depth.

“It’s got a stomping feel with a folksy feel,” Gilbert said. “But both of the guys used to be in punk-rock scream bands, so our lyrics are still a little bit harsh. It’s got a good mix.”

After a long Wednesday in the library leading story time, Widhalm transforms into a rock cellist and heads to Austin’s legendary club, Antone’s, to set up for a show with the Mockingbird Loyals. Widhalm shakes off the day of entertaining children with song and story time and heads to the bar. She lugs in her cello, and heads to smoke a Camel Light outside of the bar.

Widhalm takes the stage, beer in hand, grabs her bow, hugs her cello like a small child, and begins her hour-long set. Gilbert and Widhalm played a duet called “Consequences.” Gilbert said that the writing process proved that she and Widhalm were a “match made in heaven.” The folksy duet entices the audience with the give of Widhalm’s soothing cello and the take of Gilbert’s Texas twang.

Widhalm wrote the cello riff three years ago; Gilbert separately wrote the lyrics as spoken word poetry over two years ago.

“She was playing it and I just started singing,” Gilbert said. “Dale, the tallest—the bald man in the band—he was like ‘Ya know, I gotta tell you guys, what Liz is doing right now is owning it, and we need to just leave it as them,’ and it just became our song.”

Widhalm’s love of music also transcends into her day life. Every day, she brings music with her to library to help children fall in love with reading and music by incorporating CD tracks and guitar playing into a traditional story time.

Though she recognizes that her day and night life contrast, Widhalm finds parallels in preparing for her gigs at the library and the bar. At night, Widhalm helps her band mates carry in instruments and amps to set up for shows.

During the day, Widhalm said, “I’m always carrying a bucket full of books and my guitar and show up early and set everything up, then have the performance. So there’s a lot of similarities. I just can’t smoke cigarettes or drink beer. But my coffee is kind of like my day beer.”

Though Widhalm does not have children of her own, she combines her passion for music with her passion for children’s literacy.

Wildhalm said, “I bring my guitar in for all of my story times and they love that. I’ll bring my cello in eventually. They'll definitely want to come and touch it and knock on it and see, can I break this? The little itty bitty ones who are just trying to figure out how strong they are and how big they are, but it’s wonderful. I never expected myself to be working with children, but now I don’t want to be doing anything else.”

During story time, the children most enjoy stories set to music, and her guitar often helps bring the stories to life. Kristi Floyd, programs and public relations manager at the Westbank Community Library, believes that kids and adults respond to music and stories in a visceral way.     She said, “We have not had a guitar player for a while at Westbank, so we are thrilled to have one again.”

“When I take it out, kids should out, ‘Guitar!’” Widhalm said. “We have shaker eggs and jingle bells that I pass out to the older kids so that we can dance along to the music.”

Widhalm sings rhyming stories and encourages the kids to dance. She believes that singing and dancing helps them to feel the energy of the literature and laugh at themselves along the way.

“I love the music part of it because they are just enraptured,” she said. “Every single one of them. Especially when I’m playing. We do CDs and dances and stuff too, but when the music is in the room there with them, I just love seeing that look and seeing how they respond to it because some of them are just still and in awe and some of them are dancing. So I think that if I can inspire the musical ability in children too, then that’s pretty exciting.”

Floyd said that Widhalm has a good rapport with the kids.

“She modulates her voice well while reading stories and then integrates both stories and song. We choose themes each week to help this process. Storytellers and librarians sing songs and use fingerplays and movement and crafts to foster appreciation for the creativity process and arts generally.”

She hopes to stay involved with her music and the library in the future. She hopes to always work with libraries. As far as her music career goes, she’s hopeful.

“I think there’s a lot of potential and that’s all I’m going to set my heart on. It’s easy to fail if you get too high of hopes.”



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